Retransmission consent battles have become as much of a year-end tradition as eggnog and holly, and 2020 is no different, with at least two disputes brewing and certainly more to come.
As of press time, two major satellite TV service providers -- DirecTV and Dish Network - lost access to stations owned by Tegna and Nexstar Media Group, respectively.
Tegna pulled the signals of its 60 TV stations in 52 markets from DirecTV and U-verse customers at 7 p.m. EST, ending days of speculation. Tegna’s retransmission consent agreement with DirecTV ended on Nov. 30, but the broadcaster gave the distributors a one-day extension as talks continued. While that is usually a sign that negotiations are moving forward, that was not the case as the Tegna stations went dark after the new deadline passed without a deal.
On its station websites, Tegna claims its rate increases are market-based and reflect the quality programming it provides, pointing to the “hundreds of deals” it has reached with other distributors.
“Those providers all felt that they were able to reach a fair deal with us while continuing to offer value to their subscribers,” Tegna said on its websites. “There is no reason why this negotiation with DirecTV and AT&T U-Verse should be different.”
DirecTV and U-verse parent AT&T, citing the importance of unfettered access to local news during a pandemic, urged Tegna to keep the stations live to its customers as talks continued, but that offer was not taken.
“In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, Tegna is demanding the largest rate increase we have ever seen, and intentionally blacking out its most loyal viewers,” AT&T said in a statement. “We challenge Tegna to return its local stations immediately while we finalize a new agreement and pledge to pay Tegna retroactively whatever higher rates to which we eventually agree. We share our customers’ frustration, appreciate their patience and intend to do all we can to resolve this matter soon.”
Dish Network first warned of the possible loss of 164 Nexstar stations on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 26). That warning became reality at 7 p.m. on Dec. 2.
The dispute, as usual, is centered around money. Dish claims Nexstar is demanding record setting rate hikes -- the “shocking increase is the highest we’ve ever seen,” Dish TV group president Brian Neylon said in a press release. Nexstar fired back, saying it has made several reasonable offers, all rejected by Dish, since the talks started in July.
While the length of the blackouts could go either way -- DirecTV said in a statement that past Tegna disruptions of service lasted mere hours or days -- other potential disputes with other distributors are beginning to queue up.
Later this month, Comcast faces retrans negotiations with about 79 stations across its footprint. Many of those -- about 31stations -- are owned by its NBC and Telemundo units, so talks are expected to be at least cordial. But there are another 43 stations owned by Hearst TV, Cox Media Group and Hubbard Broadcasting that are also due for renewal. Last month, Comcast said it would drop 38 Hearst TV out-of-market stations located between two separate Nielsen Designated Market Areas across the country on Dec. 22.
The decision to drop those stations apparently came during early negotiations for broader deals with Hearst TV, and will have no effect on those bigger deals. Essentially they are duplicate broadcast affiliates that were offered in communities that sit between two separate Nielsen Designated Market Areas and are offered usually free of charge.
For example, one of the stations set to be removed is KOAT-TV, the ABC affiliate in Albuquerque, N.M., that Comcast customers in Portales, N.M. received in addition to the Amarillo, Texas ABC affiliate, KVII-TV. Portales is located in the Amarillo DMA, but because it is closer to Amarillo (123 miles) compared to Albuquerque (231 miles away), it receives access to both stations. While Portales Comcast customers won’t be able to watch KOAT after Dec. 22, they will still receive the Amarillo ABC affiliate KVII and its local news.
Earlier in the week Comcast seemed pretty convinced that the stations would go away on Dec. 22, but in recent days has changed the wording on its website. A few days ago, the site said ““On December 22, 2020, we'll be removing some TV stations from neighboring markets,” adding that the reason is that the owner of the station in the neighboring market was “insisting we pay additional fees to continue to carry their station in your area.”
Now the site says that customers “may lose some TV stations,” and that it is “currently negotiating with the stations' owner to be able to continue carrying the signals of its stations.”
Whether that means the two are closer to an overall deal that includes the out-of-market stations, remains to be seen. But we can hope.
In an email message, Comcast said that the primary market Hearst stations expire on Dec. 31. “We are currently negotiating with Hearst to continue carrying the signal of its stations, including the out-of-market stations.”
Hearst declined comment.
Even if the out-of-market stations disappear, neither side should be too upset. Comcast wasn’t paying for the stations before and won’t be if it drops them. And the viewers affected weren’t being counted in the Hearst stations’ ratings because they aren’t in the same DMA. Once the aforementioned duplicate stations are removed, residents in those affected markets can still access that station’s local news, either via their respective websites or through the NewsON app, which offers free access to local news from more than 275 stations in 165 markets.
Comcast has another three stations owned by Sunbeam Television -- WHDH (Independent) in Boston; WLVI (CW) in Cambridge, Mass.; and WSVN (Fox) in Miami -- that come up for renewal in January. Sunbeam has been a fairly aggressive retrans negotiator in the past -- it blacked out DirecTV customers in 2012 and in 2016 for a few weeks -- but recently hasn’t had a major scuffle. Hopefully that will continue.
Other distributors will likely face retrans battles as the “Annus Horribilis” that has been 2020 comes to a close. So far, none are tipping their hands -- Cox Communications and Charter said they don't reveal that info until closer to their respective deadlines. But you can bet that before the virtual ball drops on this year, there will be more shouting to come.
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